Throughout his career, Wilkie Collins, like many other writers, was torn between a need to satisfy the demands of the popular reading public and a personal desire to create works of lasting artistic merit. He achieved the desired synthesis only twice, initially with The Woman in White and, a few years later, with The Moonstone (1868). The Woman in White was both his most popular work and his most important serious book.
Although the plot of The Woman in White is fantastic, it is based, as were many of Collins’s crime stories, on an actual case history he discovered in Maurice Méjan’s Recueil des causes célèbres (1808). In 1787, Madame de Douhault was cheated out of a portion of her father’s estate by a brother. On her way to Paris to launch proceedings against her brother, she stopped at a relative’s home, where she was drugged, confined to a mental hospital, and declared dead. The unscrupulous relatives collected all that remained of the father’s estate. Like her fictional counterpart, Madame de Douhault—wearing a white dress—finally escaped, but, unlike Laura Fairlie, she was never able legally to reestablish her identity, despite positive identifications from friends and associates. She died a pauper in 1817.
The crime becomes more elaborate and complicated in Collins’s hands. Not only is the heroine drugged and secreted in an asylum, but a deceased double is buried in her place. “The first part of the story,” Collins commented in a newspaper interview, “will deal with the destruction of the victim’s identity. The second with its recovery.” Collins added a number of secondary lines to this basic plot movement: the question of Laura’s marriage to Percival Glyde; the identity and story of Anne Catherick, the mysterious “woman in white”; the love affair between Laura and Walter Hartright; Laura’s supposed death and the events surrounding it; Percival’s relationship with Anne’s mother, Mrs. Catherick, and his mysterious secret; and, finally, Count Fosco’s mysterious background.
Complex as the plot is, Collins handles the threads of the narrative in such a way that they support and complement one another without obscuring the central thrust of the book. While answering one question, Collins uses that answer to introduce new, more provocative questions. As the puzzles are gradually unraveled, the pressures on the hero and the heroines become more extreme. Throughout much of the book, the victims seem nearly helpless before the villains’ power. The reversal does not come until late in the novel and, when it does, the shift is sudden. Nevertheless, even in the last important scene, Walter’s confrontation with Fosco, when the initiative is clearly the hero’s, the sense of danger remains intense. Nowhere does Collins demonstrate his mastery of intricate plotting more effectively than in The Woman in White, and it remains, with the possible exception of The Moonstone, the most perfectly structured example of the sensation novel.
The gradual revelation of the intricate conspiracy is made doubly effective by Collins’s narrative method. The story is told in bits and pieces by a number of characters who reveal only as much as they know. Some of the narrators, among them Walter, Marian Halcombe, and Fosco, are major participants who explain and interpret events as they occur or after the fact. Others, such as Laura’s uncle, Frederick Fairlie, Glyde’s housekeeper, and Eliza Michelson (and even Laura’s tombstone), can provide only fragments of information that reflect their brief connections to the story. This technique, in which he reveals only so much information at any one time as convenient, gives Collins a...
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Woman in White (Collins)
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(Below you'll find two sets of questions: one from Penguin and the other from Random House.)
1. Laura is presented as an ideal of Victorian womanhood, obedient, respectful of social conventions, and willing to sacrifice her own wishes for others. How does her double, Anne Catherick, illuminate the dark side of that ideal?
2. "You will make aristocratic connections that will be of the greatest use to you in life," Collins's father told him when he started school. But Collins lived a life on the periphery of respectable English society that his father would not have condoned. In the novel, how is pedigree intertwined with deception and immorality? Where do the lines blur between servants and the served? How are the underprivileged used as a screen for viewing the upper-crust characters?
3. Why is Marian so mesmerized by Fosco, who she says "has interested me, has attracted me, has forced me to like him"? Why is Fosco able to see Marian, despite her physical unattractiveness, as a "magnificent creature"?
4. When Hartright returns from Honduras to restore Laura's true identity, he brings tactics he had first used "against suspected treachery in the wilds of Central America" to "the heart of civilised London." Why is he forced to work outside the laws and conventions of society to achieve his aim? Why did he have to leave England and return in order to make this change?
5. One critic has suggested that Marian and Fosco might be considered the true protagonists of The Woman in White. (In many ways they are much closer to Collins's own bohemian sensibilities than Hartright and Laura.) In what sense might this be true? How would you interpret the story's conclusion— especially Marian and Fosco's fate—in this light?
6. The use of multiple narrators was one of Collins's favorite storytelling techniques. What qualities does each narrator bring to the story? How does each change our view of the characters? Could the story have been told from a single viewpoint, and if so, whose?
(Questions issued by Penguin—cover image, top-right.)
1. Wilkie Collins has been hailed as the creator of the “sensation novel”. Citing examples from The Woman in White, how would you define this Victorian literary genre?
2. In his preface to the 1860 edition of The Woman in White, Collins wrote, “An experiment is attempted in this novel, which has not (so far as I know) been hitherto tried in fiction. The story…is told throughout by the characters of the book.” Was the experiment a success? What is gained and what is lost in telling the story exclusively through first person narratives?
3. In her Introduction to this Modern Library edition, Anne Perry asks, “What is there in The Woman in White that transcends the change in culture from 1860 to the present, and beyond?” How would you answer this question?
4. Collins has been widely praised for his fully drawn portraits. Which characters stand out as the most vivid, and why?
5. Throughout the novel, how does Collins use premonitions, coincidences and dreams to foreshadow key events?
6. “Walter Hartright is very much a man of his time, ” declares Anne Perry. “His view of women is almost unbelievably naïve compared with today’s.” Drawing on Hartright’s descriptions of Marian Halcombe and her sister Laura, as well as Anne Catherick and her mother, do you agree with Perry’s comment? Do you think that Wilkie Collins shared his protagonist’s view of women?
7. Why does Mrs. Catherick allow her own daughter to be placed in an insane asylum, and how does she justify her actions?
8. In his concluding narrative, Count Fosco describes “thefirst and last weakness” of his life. What is the nature of Fosco’s self-described “deplorable and uncharacteristic fault”?
9. Throughout the novel, how does Collins explore the themes of respectability and social class?
(Questions issued by Random House.)
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